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Should we be protecting students from their mobile devices?

Protecting Students from Cell Phone - TeacherCast Guest Blog

When I left the teaching profession, cell phone technology was in its infancy.  Many of them were still clamshell-shaped and few could connect to the Internet unless the contract owner was paying exorbitant fees.  They were also few and far between, so much so that if I saw one in the classroom, it was still more like that I’d confiscate it than use it for instruction.

In 2013, the University of Alabama Birmingham’s Collat School of Business predicted that by 2016, there would be more than 10 billion mobile internet devices in the world.  These devices include smartphones, the most ubiquitous of modern cell phone technologies, and according to Statista, over 14 million were sold in 2015, blowing UAB’s prediction out of the water.

What does that mean for educators in today’s classrooms?  While it means a greater deal of innovation, especially in the freedom the BYOD movement brings to the classroom, it also means a greater deal of diligence in order to protect students from themselves and each other.

Real Life vs. Digital Life

In May of this year, the Washington Post began a series of articles about Generation Z, the children currently in your classrooms.  Written by a pair of Millennial reporters, the series of four articles, the Screen Age, is eye-opening, especially considering the two young ladies writing the articles even had to ask for help defining the newest Internet terms.

The first article details life for a 13-year-old with today’s best technology.  For digital immigrants like many of her teachers, it’s frightening.  Her attention span appears to be nonexistent, as she flips back and forth among myriad apps.

According to author Jessica Contrera, her “iPhone is the place where all of her friends are always hanging out. So it’s the place where she is, too. She’s on it after it rings to wake her up in the mornings. She’s on it at school, when she can sneak it . . . . She sets it down to play basketball, to skateboard, to watch PG-13 comedies and sometimes to eat dinner, but when she picks it back up, she might have 64 unread messages.”

For this teen, the iPhone has practically replaced real life with a digital one.  Contrera’s subject posts discreetly on Instagram, choosing only the photos that show her in the best light, metaphorically or literally.  She desires likes, followers, and “tbh’s,” which are compliments on her posts.  Gone are the days when students interacted strictly face-to-face.

Now they ask celebrities they follow for “LBs,” or like-backs, prompting famous teenager Kylie Jenner to tweet that she wished they’d stop and she would never LB any of her followers or commenters.  It’s difficult to get students to disengage from their digital lives when the age-old adage of, “but that’s what everyone else is doing” still stands.

As educators, counselors, resources officers, and administrators, you are positioned to help students unplug from their digital lives even as you leverage technology in your schools.  Start small, with activities similar to those conducted at a university’s research project.  Ask your students to experiment with a day unplugged, then a week, then a month.  Turn this into a research project in your psychology or technology class.  The results, for you and your students, could be staggering.

Digital Life Gets Ugly

Unplugging could become a legal matter for some of your students.  If you haven’t been introduced to the world of cyberbullying, count yourself lucky.  You likely educate in a bubble.  Cyberbullying is now so prevalent that there is a Cyberbullying Research Center.

Last year, the CRC released a study sampling 457 students between the ages of 11 and 15, the ages of the students in the Washington Post’s Screen Age article series.  Of those 457, 34.4 percent reported being cyberbullied.  Of those same 457, 14.6 percent admitted cyberbullying others.

The Screen Age’s third piece, also written by Contrera, tells the story of Maureen, who was a 7th-grader when she sent revealing text messages to a boy in her school.  These messages are known as “sexts,” and many students who send them do so thinking they will remain private.

In truth, it’s often the exact opposite.  As Maureen’s story illustrates, the sexts are often collected in password-protected file sharing applications.  While you’re using Google Docs to collaborate on writing with your Literature students, they may very well be using the same tool to sexually harass their fellow students.

It’s important to teach all students the value of self-esteem, and that it is not linked to either the number of likes on an Instagram post or the entreaties of a classmate.  This is tougher to teach than the values of unplugging from the digital world.

Instead, it’s better to teach them the legal ramifications of sexting and cyberbullying.  More of a tough-love approach than you might be used to employing, discussing these issues are important.  For people who request images such as the ones Maureen sent her classmate, there could be criminal charges.  The young man who received Maureen’s sext and those of many others of her female classmates is facing the following charges in Massachusetts:

  • possession of child pornography
  • dissemination of obscene materials to minors
  • enticement of a child under 16

Research whether or not your state makes a distinction between child pornography and sexting among underage kids.  Massachusetts is not one of those states.  Maureen’s harasser has not yet been convicted, and it’s been over a year.  It is likely he will enter a plea and end up under the supervision of a juvenile probation officer, who is equipped to deal with this unique situation.

In some states, even Maureen could have been charged with distribution of child pornography.  Instead, she lives daily with the reminder that the private images she sent a boy are no longer private.

All is Not Lost

Crowdsourcing in education is still one of the best ways to bring innovative techniques into the classroom.  Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and the driving force behind ASU Online, led a panel on crowdsourcing and education innovation in March of this year.

During the panel, Crow stated that . . . “when you start measuring everything you’re doing around student success—everything, that you’re doing, around student success—all that old traditional, monk-like structure of a Middle Ages institution, thinking that a bunch of geniuses can solve everything on their own—well we have a bunch of geniuses. These geniuses, however, are taking ideas from others, and focusing all these ideas on student success . . .”

For Crow and his colleagues, it’s about using the ideas of the students and their own resources to improve both learning and its outcomes.

In the same month, this panel was held, I wrote about how virtual schools would benefit from taking a page or two from higher education.  The same could be said for traditional schools, no matter the level, and the BYOD movement continues to help that.

By educating students about the pitfalls of a constantly connected life and warning them of the consequences when they abuse the privilege, you are setting them up to be good digital citizens.  You are also preparing them to use best practices in and out of the classroom, which in turn helps them be better innovators and students overall.  Plus?  It protects you as the educator.


Hattie James is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho. She has a varied background, including education and sports journalism. She is a former electronic content manager and analyst for a government agency. She recently completed her MBA and enjoys local ciders.

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